Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Story of the Jews of Jackson County, Florida - Part I: Origins

This account of the history of the Jewish community in Jackson County, Florida is a work in progress.  Suggestions and input are encouraged and information will be updated or corrected as necessary.

Part I: Origins

Ante-bellum Florida’s Jewish population was miniscule. At the time Florida achieved statehood in 1845, about fifty Jews lived within its boundaries, spread across the northern tier. The most prominent Jew in territorial Florida was Moses Levy, a land developer and plantation owner, even something of an abolitionist sympathizer, who tried to create a refuge for persecuted European Jewry in Florida. [For the definitive account of Levy's fascinating life, refer to Chris Monaco's Moses Levy of Florida, 2005.]. While Levy was ritually observant, his sons abandoned the faith of their father. One son, David, appended “Yulee” to his last name, derived from Moses Levy's father's name. This David L. Yulee was elected one of Florida’s initial senators upon statehood in 1845, making him the first U.S. Senator of Jewish descent. Yulee remained a fixture in Florida politics for decades.

Moses Levy was Sephardic, born in Morocco, but the small wave of Jews that migrated to Florida in the years between statehood and the Civil war, maybe two hundred in total, were mostly of German origin. These newcomers from Bavaria, the Rhineland and Alsace sought escape from oppressive government policies toward Jews. By the late 1840s, a pattern was established: young men, in their early twenties, or even late teens, came to New York where they obtained merchandise small enough to carry on their backs, and then set out to peddle their wares across the American countryside. Many found welcome in the South where farmers appreciated their useful merchandize and the novelty of their appearance to break the monotony of rural life. Once a peddler built up enough capital, he typically sought to establish a store in some underserved community with stock replenished on trips back and forth to New York.

By 1850, Marianna still had no permanent Jewish presence. But in nearby Quincy about five young German-Jewish men resided, or at least rested between peddling excursions. One of these men, Samuel Fleishman, was born in Bavaria and had arrived in New York in late 1845. It is not known why he chose Quincy, but Samuel appears there in the 1850 census with another, younger man, Philip Fleishman, presumably a brother. Unlike David and Jacob Strauss and Solomon Levi, all listed as peddlers in the Gadsden County census, the Fleishmans had already risen by 1850 to the status of merchants. By 1853, Fleishman had purchased property in Marianna.

Next - Part II: Jackson County's first Jewish family

[Correction 5/10/12:  On the basis of information from Rachel Heimovics of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, I deleted a phrase stating that David Yulee had converted to Christianity.  There is no evidence that he ever took this step.]

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